Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has started his stint in office with a bloated federal cabinet of 43 members, comprising 27 federal ministers and 16 ministers of state. Given that the expected tenure of the stand-in prime minister will either be 45 days or 10 months, this seems exorbitant, especially if it is recalled that the previous cabinet of Nawaz Sharif that had been inducted for a full term had 36 members. Clearly, this excessively bloated cabinet is aimed at closing ranks and keeping the ruling party’s vote bank intact with an eye to the 2018 elections. This perception is further strengthened by the heavy tilt towards inducting MNAs from southern Punjab. Although most of the new cabinet faces are familiar from the previous one, only four ministers have retained the same portfolios. Further, the reshuffle amongst the rest of the previous members of the cabinet is accompanied by the restructuring of ministries and the divisions under them. Five new ministries and divisions have been created. So far, the portfolios of 26 federal ministers and 13 ministers of state have been announced. The notable changes are the appointment of former defence minister Khwaja Asif as a full time foreign minister, a demand Nawaz Sharif had resisted for four years. Former Commerce Minister Khurram Dastgir has been given the defence ministry. Ishaq Dar has been retained as Finance Minister despite the reference against him in NAB ordered by the Supreme Court. Chaudhry Nisar’s ‘retirement’ has paved the way for his ‘rival’ Ahsan Iqbal to be appointed Interior Minister. As to the restructuring, a new energy ministry has been created with two constituent divisions: Power and Petroleum. The existing water and power ministry has been dismantled, with the power division going to the energy ministry, while the petroleum and natural resources ministry has been converted into the petroleum division and put under the same new energy ministry. Five new ministries include narcotics, privatisation, statistics, water resources and postal service. Earlier these divisions were under other ministries. This expansion of ministries is inexplicable, even given the justification put forward that these would improve governance and the speedy implementation of economic policies. An official source is quoted as saying the real reason was to accommodate the new cabinet inductees.
The large cabinet may have been driven by electoral exigencies, but after the 18th constitutional amendment, the concurrent list of subjects was abolished and all those subjects devolved to the provinces. Logically then, the federal cabinet needs to be leaner. At best the ministries no longer needed at the Centre because of this devolution require only a minimum structure (say a division) for the purpose of Centre-provinces and inter-provincial co-ordination. On the one hand the Centre complains that with 57.5 percent of the divisible pool going to the provinces under the seventh NFC Award it does not have enough resources to meet federal obligations, amongst which debt servicing and defence top the list, in that order. The former has ballooned during the last four years, increasing the pressures on federal finances, and which are likely to increase exponentially in years to come. On the other, it has been exceedingly ‘generous’ in forming such a large, albeit relatively short-lived cabinet. This creature is being described in some circles as an ‘election’ cabinet. Be that as it may, the appointment of a full time foreign minister at last comes as a relief, given the troubling challenges on this front confronting the country. What remains to be seen is whether its large body will be a boon or bane for the new cabinet. The jury is out on that one.